It’s surprising how surprised many commentators are about quite unsurprising events during this Canadian emergency. Our security and intelligence systems were so focused on international terrorism they were caught unawares by domestic threats, such as the truckers’ convey and protests.
Before shouting “Stop the presses!” it’s worth seeing how recent events fit in with the past 80 or so years of failure of western security and intelligence systems.
The Cold War began in the 1950s because of intelligence failures that could have also prevented the Second World War. Nazi Germany’s initial military weakness should have allowed what became the Allied nations to stifle its territorial conquests. Japan’s plan to attack Pearl Harbour in 1942 was known but lost in the intelligence bureaucracy. After the war, the Soviet Union used double agents to lure western agents to their deaths. The double agents also helped swindle large amounts of money out of the West on the false premise that it would be used to help fight Communism from within.
By the late 1950s, the world’s best spies were in East Berlin, the portion of the city controlled by the Soviets. British, American, and French forces controlled other sectors. News that the Soviet Union and East Germany planned to build the Berlin Wall slipped out at a news conference about two months in advance, yet the Allies missed the hint. The East had to import barbed wire from the West through a circuitous route involving several countries to build the barrier. The best spies in the West missed 156 kilometres of barbed wire and other supplies coming into Berlin.
When the U.S. planned to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the military and intelligence community knew the assault would fail without air and other support. And it did fail.
North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive in 1968 was a big surprise, as was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1978 Iranian revolution, the 1979 Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, Indian nuclear tests, and the Arab Spring rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s.
During the Iraq War, I was working with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Malta. Colleagues of mine who had just come back from Iraq were scorning the weapons of mass destruction theories coming from the U.S. Yet, the U.S. government acted on flawed intelligence.
Then there are tactical errors. In one 1960s Chicago race riot, some U.S. National Guard troops decided to shoot out streetlights to give them the cover of darkness. Troops on the next street thought they were under attack and returned fire.
About the time of these celebrated 1960s protests, I observed a protest at the Peace Arch border crossing between British Columbia and Washington State. Protesters were opposing everything from the Amchitka nuclear tests to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the War in Vietnam, and U.S. cultural imperialism. Law enforcement seemed absent, and border guards did nothing. Sound familiar? In the absence of law enforcement, Blaine residents chased the Canadian invaders back across the border.
Shortly after, it was clear that domestic intelligence had underestimated the threat from the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ). The Canadian government compounded the error by over-reacting and imposing the War Measures Act. Sound familiar?
A few years after the Blaine and Greenpeace protests, I was a civilian contractor to Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND). I worked on most military bases in Canada, in Cyprus with peacekeepers, and with senior officers at DND headquarters. I had long dinners and deep conversations with remarkable officers. No one thought the Cold War would end soon, and the best prediction I had about the reunification of Germany was “Not in my lifetime.” Yet both occurred within years.
One of my colleagues, retired General Ron Cheriton, joined Canada’s Counter Terrorism (C.T.) Task Force. He told me the greatest threat to Canadian security was the abortion movements – pro and con – the animal rights movement and the environmental movement. Around the same time, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) determined the greatest threat to U.S. security was fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—in that order. Both of those were clear failures of intelligence.
But the General rightly told me of the failure of the chain of command. For example, when a gang of 17 terrorists were apprehended in Toronto, General Cheriton and I were on the phone laughing. When seven police agencies have to hold a press conference together, he said, you can be sure no one is in charge.
U.S. intelligence continued to scan the skies north and east over the Atlantic Ocean years after the end of the Cold War. Yet they missed planes flying down the Hudson River toward the World Trade Center. The 9/11 Commission called this a failure of imagination. No one imagined using a plane as a weapon, even though a plane had landed on the White House lawn, in Red Square, and had hit the world’s tallest building at the time – the Empire State Building.
After 9/11, the intelligence community morphed into Homeland Security in the U.S. It became so focused on foreign terrorism that there was inadequate preparation for Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans.
As you can see from this list, we’ve spent billions of dollars on border and airport security and achieved little other than slowing everyone down. So I’d enjoy being spared the shocked commentary on TV that no one foresaw the domestic threat Canada is facing.
As a Cold War footnote, the amphitheatre at Berlin’s Waldbuhne seats 22,000 people and was the site of the 1936 Games. The structure survived the rise of Nazism, Allied bombing, British occupation, and British police games. Then in 1965, fans at a Rolling Stones concert wrecked the place. Western intelligence can be forgiven for not predicting the power of the Stones.
Allan Bonner has an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book, Emergency!, is a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.
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